1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Please, Help Me Learn Math's Language!

  1. May 18, 2012 #1
    My problems with math began at a very young age.

    The school I went to was very small and situated next to farmland, and the teachers didn't really have a firm grasp on the subject themselves, nor were very enthusiastic about it.

    My frustrations with the subject, and being unable to understand what the greater picture was behind it, contributed greatly to rebelling against it. My parents were also terrible with the subject, and were no real help.

    I would be put on the spot with a question, and laughed at when I attempted to take the time to think it over. I remember one occasion, I had even broke down crying in frustration. And I was video taped.

    So I began to value quickness of thinking-- Unfortunately, this required not being very thorough with that thinking, and so much of my answers would always be wrong. My peers would also make fun of me for my difficulties. I turned away from math in disgust. I would jot down fake answers to homework, and I'd barely pass maths, getting by on the skin of my teeth.

    My parents would tell me, ''You're just not a 'math person'. Don't worry about it. You're a great writer.'' ... But, to me, this has always been a challenge to meet, and figure out. It doesn't make sense to me that we categorize people by what they know, when they haven't been given the opportunity to really show what they know.

    I know that with enough time spent, and practice, anything can be learned. Anything is achievable.

    Going into high school, and then later, college, of course it makes sense that without a strong foundation, newer and newer concepts became increasingly elusive.

    And then, when I more recently have begun going through the basics, I realize I know much more than I thought.

    As I look at math and physics now, I see it quite broadly as a beautiful language and way to interpret the world that I'm unable to grasp. I feel as if there is this huge part of me that is missing, a logical, reasoning and rational part. People would always tell me that there wasn't a logical, or rational bone in my body. This serves to fuel my current ambitions.

    Though I'm frustrated and old fears come back to haunt me when I'm faced with problems, I feel exhilarated when I'm able to solve them.

    I think that, if I'm able to become brilliant at this subject, and quickly grasp these concepts and ideas, that I will become a better person because of it, and be able to understand so much more about the world around me. I don't feel as if I can be smart without a thorough understanding of maths, and to a certain extent, science. Although I never really had any trouble with science.

    But, I have no idea where to start with math, or what steps to take. I'm going at this completely from a self-study perspective, and have no means to go to any classes or find tutors. I go back to the basics and find that I know something, and then I try to take a step forward and get confused.

    But, if I know where to start, and what steps to take, I'm sure that I can achieve an understanding.

    I'm ultimately working my way up to Einstein-level, but really, who isn't?

    I know this is a broad generalization, but really, my only ambition for math is to learn it. Just to learn math for the sake of learning it. So that I don't feel as if my brain, or mind is gimped. So that I can say that I'm smart, and mean it, because there's nothing I can't grasp if I have math.

    Can someone please help me find the steps needed?
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. May 18, 2012 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Hey Fleets and welcome to the forums.

    The first thing I would ask is what your highest math class is and if you can enrol in a math degree satisfying the pre-requisites. If you have satisfied those, then this is the first step before starting a degree.

    If you haven't you should go to a community college if you are in the US and take some foundation courses in things like algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus to get up to speed to start some calculus.

    I'm sorry to hear that you were ridiculed while trying to learn: I find that absolutely appalling and the people that did and supported that action should be ashamed of themselves.

    One thing you should realize is that math is something that you constantly think about for different parts to settle in. Being slow at say calculating things doesn't mean you not be a good mathematician. If you want to be a trader, then yes you have to calculate things in your head really quickly under pressure, but if you just want to be a normal applied mathematician, then this kind of fast mental arithmetic is not necessary, although you need enough intuition to know roughly what things should be so that if you use a calculator or computer to generate the calculation, your intuition agrees with the answer.

    In terms of the intuition for math, the way I think about math is representation, constraints and transformation. The basic idea is that you represent things with something that are usually some kind of number, you start with a set of assumptions that represent constraints, and then you transform whatever you started with to something else that moves you closer to what you are looking for.

    Mathematics basically does all those things in every area of mathematics including pure mathematics, applied mathematics and statistics. The difference is usually what the mathematicians in each field are trying to do and what kinds of things they are dealing with but the idea is the same. Also one thing: it does get easier if you put your energy into it.

    Another thing is that if you go to university, then you will be with people that 'want' to do math and that 'like' math. Maybe some in first year or even second year might not be like this, but by third/fourth year, the class will have people that like math and want to learn math and being around those people will help you immensely because they wont be the assholes you had with the video camera.

    So the first thing is to first get enrolled in a university program for math. After that you can consult with the professors, lecturers, TA's as well as come here and ask questions, read what other people asked and had to say about other questions, read the discussions, go to the library, and do what all interested people do in something.

    I wish you all the best for your future.
  4. May 18, 2012 #3
    Unfortunately, I don't have the means to go back to university or college at this time.

    I have noticed that there are a wide range of resources online, dedicated to helping with mathematics. MIT for example, has a huge online free open course format, with many more subjects beyond math. It's all at my fingertips, but I have no idea where to start. I need something to go off of.

    I have a very rudimentary knowledge of highschool and college math. There are many gaps in between.

    Thank you for your quick and informative reply.

    What subject should I start with?
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  5. May 18, 2012 #4

    Unfortunately we can't tell you.

    Why don't you poke around in the MIT courseware and find something you find interesting. If it is too difficult, either use some of the other "vast online resources" to figure it out, or try something different. Google is great at finding answers to your questions. You can literally type stuff in and it will post websites that have content that matches your search query.

    I think this is a case where you will have to figure out on your own where to begin. Your background is unique and your understanding of maths currently is vague at best.
  6. May 18, 2012 #5
    Start with what they call "precalculus" and make sure you understand that really well. When I say "really well," I mean really REALLY make sure you get everything in there. Then, learn calculus. After that, visit a random university website of your choice and see what they require of their mathematics students. Obtain the books (through whatever means you may use...:P) for the courses and read them in series along the path outlined by the university.


    Also, remember that math builds on itself. It is one of the few areas of study where if you do not fully understand the basics, you will be lost in the next course. Math very much relies on definitions and if you are not clear on the definitions and basic theorems, you cannot prove the next theorems that build on them. Remember that the number one rule in math is not to lie to yourself. Do not ever go to the solution first. Try not to ask for help unless you have been stuck on a problem for at least a whole day. Many people go through math thinking, "OK I get it, I know it!" only to fail the exams because they didn't really get it. If you struggle and discover the solution yourself, you will probably remember the solution forever purely due to the emotional pain you suffered trying to find the solution. This is key. "Easy come, easy go!" Remember that. Be honest with yourself, and you can learn math.
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  7. May 18, 2012 #6
    This is what I was afraid of. I think that going back to university would probably be the worst thing to do with my level of knowledge, anyway. I'll just keep plugging away at this. Thanks for your insights.
  8. May 18, 2012 #7
    I understand where you're coming from. You know a little of this and that, but there are many gaps in between, and you don't really know what you don't know or where to start.

    http://www.khanacademy.org/ Is an excellent online resource. Browse around, learn and see where you're at. If you're willing to spend a modest amount of money, http://www.mathtutordvd.com/ puts out excellent dvds that really helped me get up to speed and really makes you feel like you can learn this stuff.
  9. May 22, 2012 #8


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I think you can start browsing our precalculus forum and trying to understand problems/solutions discussed there. No matter how much you will get, you will at least see types of problems and you will have a chance to relearn some of the basic things.
  10. May 22, 2012 #9
    I can't help but wonder if the OP would be helped by a more axiomatic and rigorous approach to 'intro maths'. It's a shame I've never seen any text or lecture that aims to do this though.
  11. May 22, 2012 #10
    Thanks to all those that offered their guidance. This Khan online academy thingie is perfect for my goals, I think, and from there I can move into the open courseware that comes from MIT, and other universities. I'm very
    excited about the possibilities. :)

    Additional thanks to the tips about math learning. I think I can be honest with myself, I hope. I do know I have a tendency to try jumping too far ahead, but I'll try to keep my brain on a leash. I'm eager to learn and get at a certain point, but I have to know the basics before I jump ahead, and I think this was a big problem when I was a kid.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook